In a Just World

photo of Dr. Moses Tendler

Subject: Dr. Moses Tendler Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Shaun Mader

The segments included in this interview* were recorded during October 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Rabbi Tendler is Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics, and Professor of Biology, Rosh Yeshiva (Professor of Talmud and Torah Studies).

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Could you tell us if there is a Biblical requirement that a Jewish couple bear children? How does the Jewish tradition interpret that issue?
The basic requirement is for a Jewish couple to have marital relations whether she can become pregnant or not. That applies to a woman after a hysterectomy, applies to a pregnant woman, applies to a woman past menopause. The duty of a husband to a wife is to provide the physical solace, the physical comfort of marital relations. That is one of the 613 commandments of the bible. Having children is a separate commandment. Having children is an obligation on a couple to replace themselves. Which means they're to have, if God helps, two fertile children, a boy and a girl. So essentially your job is to leave this world as well you found it. And there is comfort given to those who cannot have children. A verse in Isaiah: "And those who are childless, I will give them Yadveshem". "I'll give them hand and name" meaning a place in the world even though they have no children. Their good deeds, become adoptive parents, they sublimate their maternal and paternal instincts and contribute to society in another way. For essentially, children is your contribution to society.

Your job is to populate the world. That is a Malthusian nightmare that drove many of our countries to limit the number of children, but that nightmare never proved to be more than the nightmare of Malthus, namely we now have countries that are dying for lack of adequate number of children to support the older generation or to make the necessary contributions to society, to till the soil, to clear the jungle, etc. We do not have the linkage that the Catholic Church has between sensuality and reproduction. Marital act stands alone as a dutiful and uh approved relationship between man and wife. All that we put in is you should be married.

What are the specific commandments that relate to procreation?
Almost everyone knows that verse in Genesis "and God blessed Abraham- God blessed Adam and Eve and said to them "be fruitful and multiply and till the earth." That's where the period is placed in most peoples' memory. The verse has one more word added " and master my world." In addition to procreating, the commandment is to be a constructive force of the world. As the commentaries put, "fear not to uproot all my mountains, reach out in all my streams, if it is the benefit of mankind." God made us masters of his world. We master the animals, we master nature and God gave us restrictions that you can not be a destructive force; not to nature, not to fellow man, for certainly you were not given mastery over man. He is not in your service.

You mentioned that ones' obligation is to leave the world how you found it. Does that mean that the true, noble obligation is to have one son and one daughter, or is there a debate over that principle?
Really, the term obligation has to be modified. In light of reality, you're not in perfect control. I can't really command you have children because God is a partner in that deal. He has to allow for it. The commandment therefore means that if you are fertile and you can have children, then you are duty bound to have at least two children. In the Talmud there is a controversy. The conclusion is the same; you are required to have a boy and a girl. If God is cooperative and you have a boy and a girl, then that fulfills the commandment. I'll say it is a unique commandment in that rarely will God give you an obligation that you can not fulfill without his help. He has to play an important role here.

How do you interpret scriptural text regarding family planning and birth control?
Birth control involves two areas of religious concern. One is not having any more children. Second is methodology; how will you not have any more children? You cannot have any more children by avoiding any child you don't want. Abortion is the most common method of family planning in the third world countries. America has options. There's an option of using the pill- preventing ovulation. That is a methodology that is without religious sanction. There the only criticism is "why aren't you having children?" But your method of not having children is acceptable. For example if a woman would want to use a diaphragm - we have problems with diaphragm or condom use because it is looked upon, and quote "unnatural". It is not a natural marital act. Now the condom is considered to be entirely unnatural simply because it does not allow for the intimacy that was intended in a marital act.

A diaphragm is less so and if a Jewish law, we would never permit anyone to use condom as a birth control. A diaphragm can be used when there's a health factor involved when a woman's health makes it necessary for her not to become pregnant. The pill can be used once a person has fulfilled his duties. Once they've had children then there is no serious objection, except for the most serious question of all- it becomes the objection: "why don't you want to have more children?" Say it's because of some mistaken notion about overpopulation. You say "mind your own business. That's God's business." We don't accept that rationale. That couple living on Park Avenue on a half a million-dollar income does not want to have any more children because Africa is overpopulated. It's not the kind of logic that stands well with the tests of either theology of plain rational reasoning. Here motivation becomes important. There is a worship of the Lord that's other than going to church, going to synagogue... prostrating yourself. There are thought obligations, what is considered to be correct thought, if you would say I don't want to have any more children because a third child would interfere with my ability to travel. This is not an acceptable motivation. We think a third child would give you more benefit than you'll get from another trip to the Aegean Seas. This is the very personal educational role of a Rabbi, of a teacher, to see that people understand the values in life. There are priorities. We've all practiced triage. We leave some things out. You put things in. It's part of the Jewish lore and law to have as many children as God allows you to have as long as you are physically able and financially comfortable to give them the kind of education and care that they need. Here in town it's not uncommon to have women with thirteen children. All are well-fed, all well-clothed, all getting a fine education, and all wanted children. And there are, of course, families I know whose second child was unwanted. That has nothing do with the question of having children. That has to do with the internal mechanism that a person has that determines what is happiness in their life, what called stress in their life? Some people another child in their life would be most stressful. In some people, not having another child would be most stressful.

What are the key texts the in regard to abortion?
In Orthodox Judaism, we allow abortion only if the mother's life is endangered, then it becomes obligatory to abort. Unlike Catholicism which does not allow abortion even to save the life of the mother. We have a clearer Biblical instructions that a mother's life takes precedent over fetal life, but beyond that a fetus has enough personhood after day forty of gestation to be defended as a human being and make murder apply to infanticide and abortion.

When Noah left the arc as the text reads in chapter nine God said "he who spilleth the blood of man within man, his blood shall be spilled." And the interpretation of "blood of the man within man" means abortion or a victimless crime namely hanging yourself. Then you killed the man within the man outside the help of the other man. It's a Biblical prohibition that is considered by us to be universal, not Jewish. Abortion is one of the seven Noahiddic laws- the seven Noahiddic laws given to Adam and Noah as they referred to, Noahiddic, from Noah, are universal laws. Basically those that have been accepted by western civilization namely prohibitions of murder, idolatry and adultery. Abortion is included in murder.